How did your interest in technology and entrepreneurship develop?
My interest in technology started back in school. I fell in love with mathematics and physics and I knew I wanted to do something related to engineering. I enrolled at Nairobi University to study electrical engineering. We were a handful of women in a class of about 200 students. This was very discouraging and we had to stick together to stay motivated.
I later got a scholarship to Strathmore University in Kenya where I studied business and information technology. It was here that my interest in entrepreneurship developed. I started my first business providing printing and computer services to students after I observed that these services were not readily available. Computers were very central to our course and yet at the time computer costs were still too high for most students to afford a personal computer. I started the business with money I borrowed from my parents even though they didn’t think it was a good idea for me to start a business while at university. Like most African parents, they wanted me to concentrate on my studies, but I managed to convince them that I would focus on my studies and that this problem of a lack of computer access for students was one that I was passionate about solving.
The business grew rapidly as it was solving a real problem, and making money at the same time. However, when the university started offering the same services a few years later, I couldn’t compete as I had limited resources as a student and that was the end of that business. But the whole experience made me realise that my passion lies in helping to solve challenges and improve the lives of people around me.
Why did you decide to leave a budding corporate career to start a business?
After university I got an opportunity to work with Coca-Cola where I led projects, deploying solutions for their distribution network. This allowed me to get close to, and understand, the challenges facing small-scale distributors in low-income market segments. I also gained experience in creating technology-based solutions to address these challenges.
However, I found that I couldn’t move at the pace I wanted within the environment of a large corporate. I needed to have the freedom to innovate fast, iterate and learn from my mistakes. So, I decided to move on to start a business called Weza Tele, which was focused on solving problems and increasing visibility in the supply chain to empower small-scale distributors. Looking back, I think I was a bit naive but very determined. I remember my boss tried and failed to convince me to stay at Coca-Cola. This was around the time when the tech ecosystem in Kenya was just beginning to take root.
To gain experience, I joined the iHub innovation hub where I helped set up some of their initiatives, such as iHub research, while developing my idea for Weza Tele. It was exciting to be a part of building the foundation of the ecosystem which also supported me to build my idea and start to plan how I was going to execute it. After two years, I left iHub to focus on Weza Tele.
How did you go about setting up Weza Tele, and what is your advice for women who want to set up a business in technology but may not have a technical background like you do?
I developed the initial concept and then went about building a team because I needed help figuring out the commercialisation aspect. I had the technical skills, but I knew that to make it as an entrepreneur, I needed to learn the business side of things. There is no point in building an amazing product if it doesn’t sell and, most importantly, provide value to your target users. I also needed to put in place processes and structures which was an area where I lacked experience. So, I surrounded myself with people who had the knowledge and expertise in these areas.
Technology is just an enabler. Yes, it brings efficiency and innovation, but it’s not the business. You don’t necessarily have to have technology skills to be a tech entrepreneur. The key thing is putting the right processes and structures in place and, most importantly, building the right team to execute the vision. In startups it’s 100% about people. Even though I have the tech skills, it doesn’t mean that I am the best at it. I had to find people who do the tech part even better than me so I could focus on my strengths, which are business development and strategy. Technology keeps changing and tech businesses are very dynamic so you need passionate people who not only have the skills but are willing to breathe the vision and walk with you to the summit.
Did you face any particular challenges as a female founder in the tech space?
Most of the challenges I faced didn’t actually stem from the fact that I am a woman. They were mainly because I was operating in a very young tech ecosystem with very limited support available for tech startups. It was the lack of funding, role models, infrastructure and other common challenges we all face as entrepreneurs, male and female.
However, being a young female entrepreneur, I often walked into offices and I could tell I was not what they were expecting. They were probably expecting an older, powerful-looking man and seemed puzzled when I walked in. Some of these meetings were to discuss big opportunities and the comments and looks would sometimes start to affect my confidence. Even though it was not stated explicitly, I could see they questioned my ability to deliver because I was young and I was a woman. There were some instances where I thought to myself, “If I were a man, we wouldn’t be having this same conversation.”
My approach for overcoming their doubts was to ask for smaller pilot opportunities so my team and I could prove our ability to execute before committing to larger projects. This approach worked and in the end we were able to convince clients of the value of our solutions because our execution spoke for itself.
Are there any mistakes you made that you would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to avoid?
One of the mistakes I made was bringing my friends into the business. They agreed to join me because they were my friends, but looking back I realise it was not really their passion or where they wanted to go with their careers. This ended up creating tension because they were not able to execute the way I wanted and were not motivated about the business. It became a lot of work for me, constantly having to try and give them that drive.
In the startup environment, with all the uncertainty and limited resources, you really need people who are passionate to be able to push through. Running a startup is challenging and you don’t always have the funding to keep people incentivised. In the end, they left because they wanted more stable jobs and careers, and I don’t blame them because, ultimately, any business needs to build up the resources to develop and retain talent. I had to get mentors to help me put this foundation in place. These mistakes have taught me a lot for my second venture and now I am able to consider these issues and set the right foundation from the start.
After overcoming many challenges to achieve success with Weza Tele, why did you decide to start all over again with your current business Pezesha?
They say entrepreneurship is addictive and I can relate to that. Once you have the experience of building something and creating an impact, you want to continue. I did it all over again because I believe it’s my purpose. Knowing your purpose is a continuous journey of self-discovery. I believe mine is finding relevant solutions and creating opportunities for the most excluded people in the community, particularly young people. That is what I believe I am destined to do.
When I think about all the young Africans who don’t have jobs, I’m driven to use the knowledge I have acquired to inspire more young people to be entrepreneurs , create jobs and to do even better than me. I want to create a real, lasting impact that will be felt for generations to come.
This article is an excerpt from the book Founding Women, by Eunice Baguma Ball, which features the stories of 20 inspiring African women tech entrepreneurs.